ITHACA, N.Y.—From salt sheds to shops and swanky digs. The City of Ithaca Planning Board got their first glimpse Tuesday night at plans for a large mixed-use project pitched for the former New York State Department of Transportation site adjacent to the Ithaca waterfront.

The proposal, called “Waters Edge,” would bring residences, ground-level retail, and enhanced waterfront amenities to the 8.13-acre waterfront parcel at 683 Third Street. As designed, about 200 residential units would be built in the first phase of the project, the northern half, and 250-300 units in the second phase, which would move forward as the local lending and real estate market allows.

The Waters Edge project consists of four buildings, at least two of which front the water and will be five stories. Retail commercial and amenity spaces will occupy the ground level, with residences on the upper floors.

The Cayuga Waterfront Trail would be retained along the inlet bank, with enhanced amenities such as landscaped seating areas and several adjacent plazas of varying sizes for seating and dining. The proposal also touts easy access to ground-level retailers and potentially a large public dock with several slips and a launch space for small boats, providing easy access to the adjacent Farmer’s Market.

The trail’s swing bench and overlook would be kept as-is, with the boat docks being the primary trail enhancement, the final design of which will depend on what the NYS Canal Corporation allows.

Whether any of the units will be for-sale, or if the proposal will include affordable units, was not made clear at this early stage of the process. Arnot Realty’s Ian Hunter noted both phases would provide retail space.

The site was used from the late 1950s until recently as the regional office and equipment/storage facility for the NYS Department of Transportation (DOT).

However, as the site was becoming functionally obsolete, constrained by the Farmer’s Market next door and lacking easy access to many of the area’s major state highways, the DOT decamped to a new regional facility built in 2020 in the Town of Lansing off of Warren Road.

That departure to the suburbs allowed the state to auction off the DOT site as surplus land. The city and county have been keen on this for years, not just because it allayed fears of road salt and heavy-duty vehicle fluids leaking into the inlet, but because they’ve been aiming for an urbanized, mixed-use development complementary to the city’s housing and planning goals. 

Studies conducted on behalf of the county suggest an ambitious developer could pursue a large and valuable project on the site, thanks to favorable zoning and a desirable location along Ithaca’s waterfront.

The auction was competitive, with several bidders, but it became a financial battle between Arnot and Visum Development Group as bids rose higher and higher. But Arnot won with a $3.79 million bid, nearly a full million dollars above the opening offer. Three years later, and a project has emerged.

Hunter and SWBR Architect Erik Reynolds introduced the sketch concept plan to the city Planning Board Tuesday. Neither is a stranger to the board, with Hunter appearing before the board electronically during the pandemic for the West End Ironworks, while Reynolds was the architect-representative for Visum’s The Breeze when that project was navigating the board approval process earlier this year.

Also working on the project is Fisher Associates, the firm that did the county’s DOT site feasibility study way back in 2015, and which recently acquired prolific local firm Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects for an Ithaca regional office.

For a city defined primarily by box-like designs, the plan’s architecture stands out with a contemporary, sharp, minimalist facade. The project uses a “sculptural skin,” primarily more rot-resistant thermally-enhanced wood, as a shading device, and balconies and lightwells are carved into the façade, rather than projecting out.

“We were looking at faceted forms that were clad in natural materials, that take inspiration from the natural environment surrounding it—rock, wood, and the water of course,” according to the proposal.

The two larger buildings closer to the waterfront would share a second-floor “robustly landscaped” terrace space, with covered parking pulled away from the waterfront trail’s sightlines. Two smaller buildings with more conventional surface parking are located further back from the waterfront.

As covered in more detail within the Planning Board writeup, board members were enthusiastic about the proposal, feeling that the design and features were quite complementary to the city’s goals for the property.

There were some concerns expressed about the monotone color of the wood, and suggestions for affordable housing and possibly a 50-room boutique hotel space, but generally members were excited about the plans and looked forward to seeing a formal Site Plan Review submission. Given the scale of the project, the price tag on this project likely exceeds $100 million.

There are no firm timelines available for the project, but once a Site Plan is submitted several months will be allotted for review. It was not clear if a zoning variance would be required, which would add another month to the review timeline.

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.org.